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Author Interview: Xina Marie Uhl on WHITER PASTURES
This week, we're pleased to welcome author Xina Marie Uhl with her latest release, WHITER PASTURES (Icebound series). Here's the blurb about the novelette.
A romantic novelette in the Icebound series, an ongoing collection of polar delights.
Behold dogsleds and penguins. Howling winds and cold, pitiless wastes. This is Antarctica, where the intrepid inhabitants of the frozen ends of the earth battle the terrain, and each other, to find love—in a past much like that of the early 1900s.
Reluctant spinster Florance Barton fled to the British Antarctic base to escape a scandalous love affair. Amidst the handful of other women there, Florance is the perfect chambermaid, meek, mild, and forgettable. No one has a clue that she’s also a novice spy.
When handsome young Handy McHanagan arrives at the base, he sets everyone agog. He’s charming, artistic, and ... an accomplished gardener. His arrival may be a mistake on the part of naval command. Or is it something more sinister?
Killer seals and subzero ice storms and aren’t the only danger in Antarctica: a enemy spy is on the loose. Florance has been ordered to choose between queen and country and her heart. Because penguin is off the menu now—and murder is its replacement.
Before we get started, I have a matter of confusion to clear up. What’s with your name? Did you make it up, or were your parents just weird?
No, I did not make it up, although you are not the first person to ask me that question. My name is pronounced Zeena, though it is spelled X-I-N-A. When I was growing up, I would always know when the teacher got to my name due to the pause and stumbling pronouncement. After Xena: Warrior Princess came out people began to say my name correctly for the most part. I have met a few Zinas - who spell their names with a Z. Also a few people have admitted that their dogs were named Zina. Since I love dogs I find that a compliment.
Your latest release, Whiter Pastures, revolves around a maid in Antarctica who must overcome her timidity to carry out a distressing mission from faraway England. Dashing young Handy McHanagan is the object of attention and it’s unclear whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy until the resolution. In the course of the adventure, there are many unusual elements such as spinsters, bribery, drunkenness, explosions, panic attacks, hysteria, art exhibits, and special varieties of snuff. How on earth did you combine all these?
The question might better be asked: why did I combine all these? Alas, the answer is unknowable. I have one of those restless minds that is forever googling faraway places and reading explorers’ log books and, when I’m tired of that, watching dark comedies. Somehow that all meshed into one strange, but I hope diverting and amusing tale.
Don’t worry about that, Xina--I can safely say that the answer is yes. Tallyho, then! I can’t recall ever seeing a historical romance set in Antarctica before. When does the story take place and what caused you to set it there?
The story takes place in 1900, which is just prior to Robert Falcon Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, the Discovery, in 1901. The idea is that the British Antarctic Base at Hope Bay exists to support the explorers who come later as well as conducting their own scientific and military endeavors.
As for why I set the story there, I’ve long been curious about the frozen reaches of the earth, probably because I was raised in the desert and have never lived anywhere that falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. I’m an avid traveler and I love to read about explorers as well. It took such grit and determination and sheer physical strength to scale mountains, ride rapids, and sail iceberg-choked seas, alone and in fear for one’s life. As a soft hearted landlubber I marvel at such deeds.
I can trace my fascination with Antarctica to an official beginning when I read Endurance by Alfred Lansing, the true story of Ernest Shackleton’s incredible voyage for the South Pole in 1914. When he and his crew became stranded the real adventure began. The book is full of more twists, turns, and excitement than any fictional thriller, and it is all the more mind-blowing because Shackleton and his men braved the most difficult circumstances to triumph in the end. Since then, I’ve done a lot of reading about Antarctica, and I’m first in line to see documentaries like the recent A Year on the Ice, which shows some stunning photography of the Antarctic winter, the first time that’s been done in a movie.
The story includes a few women who live and work on the British Antarctic Base in Hope Bay. How historically accurate is it?
Women weren’t part of the Antarctic bases. In fact, the British Antarctic Base wasn’t built until 1945. However, the Swedes discovered the area in 1902 and built a stone hut in 1903 which still stands in part today. The Norwegian Polar Institute has a great map of Antarctica to orient readers below, with the Hope Bay station located at the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula near Deception Island.
Because the British base wasn’t actually established until 1945, I took liberties with that detail. I also took liberties with setting women there. I did give them roles that women would likely perform such as cooks, maids, and secretaries. The protagonist, Florance, is a maid. When she’s not spying for certain Scandinavians, that is. As you can probably tell, the story has a decidedly quirky bent, but besides that, and the liberties I took with characters, the story is accurate, but most decidedly fiction. In addition to writing historical fiction, I write historical nonfiction as a freelancer, and I have two degrees in history. So I’m a mean researcher. But good history does not always translate into good fiction so the narrative must always come first. Still, it was loads of fun researching Antarctic expeditions, and my favorite form of procrastination when I should have been writing. I even consulted supply lists to make sure that I was mentioning the correct foods. Can’t forget mockturtle soup and laxative vegetables, you know!
The main character’s name, Florance, is spelled in an unusual manner. There are also unusual names throughout the story - Handy, Gorge, and Electa. Is that intentional?
Yes, definitely. I happened upon this article on the Mental Floss website about the least popular American baby names from 1880 through 1930, according to Social Security records. The names are, by turns, cringe-worthy and hilarious. It’s fascinating to see the diversity and the bad spellings, though really not terribly surprising, I suppose. We have some strangely spelled names today, too. Anyhow, a perfect storm formed in my mind - the explorer mania, Antarctic interest, bizarre names, and my silly sense of humor collided. I decided to write a series of stories called Icebound, which would focus on relationships at the frozen ends of the earth, and I would use names from this list. There are plenty to choose from and they should lead to lots and lots of stories.
The story is a mix of genres - historical, humor, romance, action. What does that mix say about your writing in general?
That I don’t like to color inside the lines, I suppose. I have fiction that is fantasy, humor, cat-related, romantic, and a mixture of all of the above. I want readers to be fully entertained and engaged by my work and to me, that means operating on a number of different levels, genre-wise. The heart and soul of the Icebound stories is relationships, though. That’s why I say they are romances with historical and humorous elements.
Last question: what’s next after Whiter Pastures?
That would be a novella in the Icebound series called All Mouth and No Trousers. It will be debuting soon - at the end of August. It’s a standalone story, but it takes place with the same characters--in different degrees of importance--as Whiter Pastures.
Thanks so much for having me here! I hope you’ll check out Whiter Pasturesfor yourself. I think you’ll agree that it earns its place here on Unusual Historicals!
About the Author
Xina Marie Uhl spends her days laboring in obscurity as a freelance writer for educational projects and dreaming of ways to scrounge up enough cash to: 1. travel the world, and 2. add to her increasing menagerie of dogs, cats, and other creatures. The rest of the time she writes fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and humor. She is the author of fantasy novelNecropolis, a collection of fantasy short stories calledThe Ruling Elite and Other Stories(with Janet Loftis),A Fairy Tail and Out of the Bag, a collection of humorous fantasy stories, and finallyThe Cat’s Guide to Human Behavior, a humorous self-help manual for cats struggling to understand their humans.
You can find her onFacebook,Twitter, andWordPress, where she writes about historical research, writing, and whatever strikes her fancy. Join her occasional newsletter for character artwork, exclusive fiction, and up-to-date news on the release of her fantasy novel, The King’s Champion, and other projects.